Travel With COPD: Effective Tips For Safe and Easy Travel
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a debilitating respiratory condition that creates several lifestyle challenges for its victims. Despite prolonged survival — thanks to new therapies, better management plans, and innovative technologies — substantial burdens remain for individuals with moderate to severe lung diseases.. Environmental exposure to various pollutants is particularly concerning, and forces some patients to remain homebound.
Taxing disease management makes it harder for some COPD patients to travel. But with a little extra planning and preparation, traveling with COPD is entirely possible. It only requires making simple, yet significant, pre-travel plans to ensure a safe trip.
To learn more about traveling with COPD, continue reading!
What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD for short, is a chronic lung disease that causes airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. Its hallmark symptoms include breathing difficulty, wheezing, frequent coughing, mucous production, and chest pain or tightness.
COPD pertains to a group of lung diseases clustered in the same category, including Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. It's a progressive disease, meaning it will worsen over time, especially in the absence of medical intervention.
COPD is a significant cause of disability for most patients, forcing some to remain homebound. While there is no permanent cure for COPD, treatments and lifestyle changes typically lead to prolonged survival outcomes.
What Makes Traveling With COPD Different?
Air travel is safe and comfortable for most passengers, even those with COPD and respiratory diseases. Some COPD patients, however, may be at more risk for travel-related symptoms than others. Fortunately, these individuals can be identified with proper screening and pre-flight assessment.
There remains, however, a need for a clear consensus surrounding altitude simulation tests and assessments for in-flight hypoxemia. According to a North American study that reported on a cohort of 100 COPD patients, those that forgo air travel have a lower mean forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), which suggests that patients with severe COPD choose not to travel by air
Airlines need to identify which individuals are likely to develop moderate to severe respiratory symptoms during air travel — hence the practice of pre-flight assessment.
There are three methods for this assessment:
- The first method consists of asking passengers whether they can accomplish a 50-meter walk test. If the answer is yes, then they are probably fit to fly.
- The second method applies several prediction equations developed from studies involving COPD patients that are exposed to a normobaric or hypobaric hypoxic environment. These studies typically measure arterial blood gas (ABG) tensions as an indicator of a passenger's fitness to fly..
- The third method involves the hypoxic challenge test. This test utilizes the oxygen saturation measured by pulse oximetry to identify passengers that will need in-flight supplemental oxygen.
10 COPD Travel Tips for Air Travel
Flying with COPD can be pretty challenging, especially if it's your first time. Whether you're traveling for leisure, business, or treatment, adequate preparation and planning are essential to ensure a safe and comfortable trip.
Before you can even pack your bags and walk out the front door, consider these ten air travel tips:
1. Schedule An Appointment With Your Doctor
Before booking a flight, talk to your healthcare provider about your travel plans. Specifically, make sure to ask them these essential questions:
- Will it be safe for you to travel?
- When traveling at a high altitude, will your oxygen requirements change?
- Are there any potential changes in your medications you need to consider?
2. Never Forget Your Medical Records
Ask your doctor for a copy of your medical records at your appointment. You can also ask them for a summary of your case. It will be helpful during emergencies so that any medical professional unfamiliar with your history can better understand how to treat you.
3. Avoid Travelling Alone
For severe cases of COPD, especially those with comorbidities like cardiac disease, it's advisable to travel with someone — whether it's a significant other, a relative, or a friend. If you fall ill during the flight, your travel companion should be equipped to answer relevant questions about your medical condition and history.
4. Stock Up on Your Meds
Nothing could be worse than leaving home to travel thousands of kilometers away only to realize that you’ve run out of medication halfway through the trip. To avoid this calamity, stock up on all your essential medicines before the day of your flight.
5. Travel With Oxygen
If you're flying to your destination, note that an airplane's cabin is pressurized to withstand high altitudes. This means that the air inside the cabin will contain less oxygen than average during a flight. As a result, the risk factors for COPD patients increase.
If you need in-flight oxygen, travel with a reliable oxygen concentrator. If you're traveling with an oxygen unit, inform the airline weeks before the day of your flight.
6. Work With the Accommodation In Your Destination
Tell them about your oxygen needs if you have accommodations at your destination, like a hotel. Inform them that you will bring it with you or that someone will deliver the equipment.
7. Check The Battery Power
If you're using a portable oxygen concentrator unit, ensure you have enough batteries. The unit must last from the first take-off to the final landing. Carry excess batteries with you in case of delays or layovers.
8. Plan the Medical Care At Your Destination
If you're traveling to a new destination, ask your healthcare provider to recommend a local doctor or hospital you can use in the case of emergencies. Get their phone number and address and add that information to your medical folder.
9. Consider Using A Wheelchair
When you're making travel reservations, consider asking for a wheelchair. The walk from your gate to the aircraft might be long, and you need to preserve the batteries of your POC. The security check-in might also be a long wait, so having a wheelchair comes in handy.
10. Arrive Early
Flight hindrances are common when traveling, especially when medical equipment must be accommodated.. Arrive a few hours early for your flight so you have enough time to clear your medical needs and equipment.
10 COPD Travel Tips for Ship Travel
Of course, air travel isn't the only transportation there is. If you're traveling by ship or cruise, there's an entirely different set of requirements you must consider if you're traveling with COPD. Here are some practical tips to make it easier for you:
1. Be Mindful of the Weather
Weather changes can cause COPD symptoms to become worse. If your destination has cold weather, make sure that you pack warm clothing. Wear a face mask or scarf so you won't inhale allergens or dust.
2. Inform the Cruise Line Weeks Before The Departure Date
While many cruise lines allow their passengers to travel with oxygen units, it doesn't mean you can show up with one. Inform the cruise line four to six weeks before the scheduled departure date to ensure they approve it.
3. Stay Up To Date With Vaccinations
If you're traveling, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the necessary vaccinations. They offer a worldwide (A to Z) map that includes the travel requirements for each country. If you're not traveling internationally, consider getting a flu shot.
4. Reduce The Risk Of Infection
Traveling on a cruise ship increases risk factors related to lung infection. To avoid placing yourself at high risk, consider doing a few of these things:
- Avoid coffee, alcohol, and tea
- Drink plenty of water
- Wash your hands frequently and bring along a hand sanitizer
- Consider wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling any airborne droplets and particles
- Bring prescribed antibiotics with you
5. Make Sure That Everything Is Ready
Usually, you will need to make the arrangements for oxygen by yourself. Bring your portable oxygen concentrator or other oxygen units with you. Also, bring a copy of your medical records in case of emergencies.
6. Get A Letter From your Healthcare Provider
A letter from your doctor or healthcare provider stating you are approved and fit for travel is required by some cruise lines. The letter should include a list of your medications and oxygen needs.
7. Request A Smoke-Free Area
When booking a hotel in your destination or a room on the cruise ship, make sure to request a non-smoking one to avoid breathing in smoke during your stay or travel.
8.Eat Healthy and Exercise
Of course, one essential travel tip is to take care of yourself. Do so before, during, and after the trip. It means you need to eat healthy food and exercise regularly to strengthen your physical body. It will also help lessen fatigue, increase your energy, and boost your mood for the trip.
9. Get Enough Rest
Remember to pace yourself. Take the time to get enough rest before and during the trip. Restore your energy so that you will get all the exciting plans!
10. Don't Travel Alone
You need a travel partner, not just for your safety and well-being, but also as a companion. It ensures that someone nearby knows about your medical needs and is ready to step in when needed.
What Are The Things You Should Take When You Travel With COPD?
To make traveling with COPD easier, prepare a checklist of all supplies and things you need. Doing so will save you from constantly worrying if you forgot something or scrambling to pack everything before leaving.
Here are the most vital things you need to take with you when you are traveling with COPD:
- Nasal Cannulas
- Oxygen Tank or POC units
- Hand Sanitizers
- Face masks
- Extra Tubing
FAQs About Traveling With COPD
Can People with COPD Travel in An RV?
Yes, as long as they have everything they need to maintain and sustain their oxygen therapy, they can travel in an RV.
Can I get Travel Insurance with COPD?
Yes. Once you declare that you have COPD, you can compare a wide range of quotes for special COPD travel insurance policies.
Can you Travel Abroad with COPD?
Yes. People with COPD can indeed travel abroad. You can travel safely and comfortably if you comply with your airline's oxygen-related requirements.
Is it Safe for Someone with COPD to Travel to High Elevations?
Traveling with high elevations of 10,000 ft or higher should be avoided by people with COPD, especially those with severe conditions.
5. Cost of Travel Insurance with COPD
It typically depends on what the travel insurance covers. These costs vary from insurance to insurance, so it is best to reach out and discuss with your insurance company to know the specific answer.
Travelling With COPD Is Easier With Reliable Portable Oxygen Concentrators
When you prepare correctly, traveling with COPD can be hassle-free and stress-free! Regardless of what type of travel you are planning — whether it's venturing the sky or sailing the seas — planning will save you time. Ensure that you follow all the requirements and are ready to go!
- Ergan B, Akgun M, Pacilli AMG, Nava S. Should I stay or should I go? COPD and Air Travel, European Respiratory Society. European Respiratory Society. Available at: https://err.ersjournals.com/content/27/148/180030
- What is COPD? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed: November 21, 2022 https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/copd
- Johnson, A.O.C. (2003) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 11: Fitness to fly with COPD, Thorax. BMJ Publishing Group Ltd. Available at: https://thorax.bmj.com/content/58/8/729 (Accessed: November 21, 2022)
- Deborah Leader, R.N. (2022) Traveling with COPD: Tips to make your trip a success, Verywell Health. Verywell Health. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/traveling-with-copd-914970 (Accessed: November 21, 2022).
- Traveling with COPD. COPD Foundation. Available at: https://www.copdfoundation.org/Learn-More/I-am-a-Person-with-COPD/Traveling-with-COPD.aspx (Accessed: November 21, 2022).
- What it takes to travel with COPD. WebMD. Available at: https://blogs.webmd.com/copd/20210921/what-it-takes-to-travel-with-copd (Accessed: November 21, 2022).
Written by Andy Flynn
Andy Flynn is the founder of Sprylyfe, the leading retailer of portable oxygen concentrators in the United States. He also co-founded ARYA BioMed.
Get to know him on LinkedIn.
Medically Reviewed By Aaron Gravely, M.D.
Aaron L. Gravely, M.D. is a professional medical writer and physician-scientist with over 8 years of experience in healthcare and medical research.